Should an Incoming Associate Voluntarily Defer a Year?

I got an email from a graduating student telling me that his law firm had asked incoming associates to volunteer to defer their start dates for a year. This is an unfortunate situation, and naturally it produces significant stress and anxiety. I thought it would be worth publicly sharing my response to the student:


I’m sorry to hear of what surely must seem like bad news. However, if you can afford it, your choice is an easy one: take the year off and enjoy life. As a working attorney, you will get very few opportunities to have a big block of discretionary time like this ever again. Here, you are being encouraged to legitimately enjoy a big block of time. For most of us, who never felt free to take a year off in our overprogrammed lives, this would be a blessing in disguise.

Plus, it is no fun working at a firm when there is too little work to go around. The lack of work creates bad dynamics, like work hoarding by more senior associates and even partners, and the pressure to find work can chew up your life. You will feel like you need to wait by the phone/email from dawn to dusk just in case any scrappy work is available to pick up, so you will work harder but with less tangible rewards in a situation like that. Also, some associates are tempted to overbill/pad their hours when they don’t have enough work to legitimately meet their hourly requirements, and this isn’t a healthy situation.

If you cannot afford to take the year off, then you have fewer good options:

1) You can go to the firm and hope they will take you and that the environment isn’t terrible.

2) You can try to find a different one-year gig. Given how many attorneys are going to be in 1 year deferral situations, this market will be intensely competitive for any good paying work.

3) You can try to negotiate a buyout from the firm, i.e., get some cash to tide you over, but obviously less than the typical starting salary. If they haven’t already offered cash, I suspect this money won’t be easy to get.